The Secret to Successfully Implementing Edtech? Put Old Tech First

June 21st, 2015 2 Comments Features

Old Tech

The U.S. now spends more than $3 billion per year on digital content for public education, but a recent post on Education Week highlighted a “mountain of evidence” indicating that teachers have been “painfully slow to transform the ways they teach, despite that massive influx of new technology.” Other studies have shown that student learning isn’t changing very quickly, either.

What’s going on here?

One problem is that, even if teachers have the very best intentions, the concept they’re trying to teach through edtech often gets absorbed by the edtech. Students become more wrapped up in learning to use the new tool than in using the tool to learn. Chances are, it’s not the “shiny new” tool itself that’s at fault here, projecting false educational potential and wasting district dollars–it’s the way we are introducing it to our students.

Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed., has pioneered research on the way the brain processes new information. You may have heard of her findings: namely, that the brain learns and retains new material best when it is presented alongside old (or familiar) material. It’s easy to understand why if you think of the brain as a network of inter-related thoughts. For a new concept to stick, it needs to be presented so that you can readily see the connection between familiar and unfamiliar. That’s just the nature of learning and memory.

“Familiarity increases recall”

“Familiarity increases recall,” Willis explains. Think, for example, of the way some textbook chapters begin, rather than end, with a list of key terms. Or how you might write a list of new vocab terms on the board before starting a lesson. “On MRI scans when the brain even recognises a word, even without knowing its meaning, there is enhanced activity in the anterior left prefrontal, left parietal, and posterior cingulate regions. This previewing or priming front-loads or preheats the brain’s related memory patterns or categories and there is less stress from unfamiliarity when the lesson is taught.”

When you help students understand the terms and concepts being discussed throughout the lesson, Willis says, they can devote more working memory to processing and analysing ideas, making connections, and actively processing the new information, and less working memory will be needed to simply decode new terms. “Their associated and relational memories will be ‘on-line’ and ready to be retrieved to the hippocampus for consolidation with the new information they encounter in the day’s [lesson].” Willis calls this “authentic incorporation” of new learning.

When it comes to educational technology, one might say we’re doing just the opposite: inauthentically incorporating new concepts into new media without regard for relational memory. How can we expect students to learn complex new material while learning how to use complex new platforms and tools? It directly undermines the way the brain works.

Here’s what we need instead: new concepts presented in a familiar way, beginning with a mode of delivery that requires no puzzling over or working out, so that students’ brains are free to think about the material itself. Then, once students see how a concept works, show them how powerful edtech can be. Here are a few ideas to get you started, courtesy of educators who have already caught on to this solution:

1. Paper & Pencil for WordPress

Holly Fairbrother, an English teacher at the Nexus International School in Singapore, teaches digital citizenship to year seven students. She asks them to consider what it takes to create a positive online persona: “How do you present who you are to the world?” And although the ultimate goal is to set up blogs with her students to showcase their writing, she doesn’t begin online. She begins on paper.

“We learn what blogging is and how it can help our learning – but on paper. We create a paper blogging community that mimics the digital realm, and allows students to learn about safe and ethical behaviours before going online.”

Students begin by writing a draft blog about a favourite food or drink on paper. They then move around the room according to whether their food is hot or cold. This demonstrates tagging or labels, which is really important as it allows them to document and search for their work effectively for comparison and progression. Students then “publish” their work by creating a neatly decorated paper post that includes their text, a referenced image, a title, and tags.

Once their posts are ready, students lay them all on the floor.

We learn what blogging is and how it can help our learning – but on paper…

“We talk about comments and how this is an integral part of a blog when it comes to learning because it’s like peer assessment. We talk about how to be helpful but critical friends who offer ways to improve, not just mean or nasty comments.”

Students are then asked to take away another’s blog, read it carefully, and write a comment on a sticky note and stick it to the bottom. They are to write something positive, as well as a suggestion for improvement, and return it to the front. They repeat this a few times so each post has a couple of comments on it.

While this is going on, Fairbrother whispers to a few students and asks them to write something deliberately mean, unpleasant, and unhelpful.

“After each blog has at least two sticky notes on, everyone gathers together at the front, where students collect and read the comments,” she says. “Almost immediately some indignant and upset students will storm up to me pointing at the deliberately mean comment, upon which I ask them to read it aloud, and then ask the class, ‘Is this helpful?’”

This leads into a discussion about trolls and how to deal with them. It also leads to a discussion about ownership of the blog.

“I ask the student if they want to keep the comment, to which they always answer no. I tell them to take it off, rip it up and put it in the bin. I reinforce the idea of ownership by saying that they have control of their blogs at all times and can remove any comments that are unkind or deliberately mean.”

The students finish by checking their work against the rubric, editing and finishing as needed, and then “publishing” by sticking it up on the walls outside the room. Sticky notes are left outside with the paper blogs and the school is informed so that comments from the whole community can be made. Students are encouraged to check their posts regularly and remove unwanted comments.

Finally, they write a reflection on their learning from the paper blogging project. A set of guidelines is then sent home, which students read and sign with parents/carers. Only once this is returned can they set up a live blog, which becomes an e-portfolio for all their best English work.

“Online behaviours are complex,” says Fairbrother. “Whilst they demand the respectful conduct we expect in our everday face-to-face interactions, the distance afforded in screen to screen interactions makes it easier to be detached.”

In order for learners to appreciate having an audience, and to learn how to be critical friends, she says, it is essential to cover these skills in the safety of a school setting before being let loose into the virtual world.

“We want learners to create digital personas they are proud of, that will help secure them a place in university, or a job, and for that, we must explicitly teach them how – starting with pen and paper.”

By providing plenty of opportunities to actively and safely experiment and learn how to be open-minded, responsible digital citizens, Fairbrother equips her students with the proper judgment they need to stay afloat in an increasingly complicated virtual world.

2. Post-It Notes for Google Docs

High school history and humanities teacher Raleigh Werberger has been trying to use Google Docs in his ninth grade history course to promote collaboration and sharing. He ran into a roadblock when he realised his students were struggling to work effectively together and have their ideas cohere in an intelligible way. “It occurred to me that co-editing in a Google Doc is a skill that itself needs to be taught and practiced before it can become effective in [a course setting],” he writes in a recent Edutopia article.

He also started thinking that one fault of technology might be that it “brings the world to the student, rather than spurring the student to get up out the chair and go find it.” He also noticed that some of his students preferred to collaborate while standing up or walking around. “Could there be a way to restore a kinesthetic element that had begun to disappear from the room with my reliance on web tools?”

His answer? Post-it notes.

“It occurred to me that co-editing in a Google Doc is a skill that itself needs to be taught”

He gave his students a large sheet of butcher paper, a pack of Post-it notes, and a few pens, and instructed them to draw a large T-chart on the butcher paper.

As part of a lesson on Imperial-era British East Africa, Werberger asked them to begin writing down details from various resources that struck them as meaningful and important (one detail per Post-it note) and put the notes in the right column with respect to the document from which it came.

“One of Google Docs’ functions that I value is how multiple people can edit at the same time — or what might be called a form of both brainstorming and organisation,” Wergerer says. “So in step two of the exercise, I asked the students to start looking for natural groupings, arrange the Post-it notes by their similarities, and come up with a statement about the theme that linked those groupings together. This gave me the time I needed to meet with each group and to have them talk me through their thinking process. It helped them see the essential similarities and differences in the two accounts, and also the way in which the two documents recounted actions and consequences depending on how they worked across the T-chart.”

Next, Werberger asked students to perform a “gallery walk” and comment on each other’s T-charts, filling in something that seemed missing or adding a comment or two to push the group’s thinking further. Then he asked each group to develop an overall statement that accounted for the similarities and differences in the two documents, or to the cause and effect relationship they saw developing between concepts.

“It was a fun way to add some physical movement to what I had feared would be the standard, uninteresting document analysis, and it was enlightening to watch them move the notes around to make sense of what was at first a large jigsaw puzzle of unrelated concepts.”

Next up for Werberger’s students: transferring these new collaboration skills to Google Docs.

3. Sewing for STEM

“Craft and maker activities are not separate practices,” writes Stephanie E. Vasko, a senior research assistant at the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania. “They exist on a continuum, and they should not be inherently limited to certain groups of practitioners.”

Researchers have found that e-textiles and sewing with circuits can help introduce young women to STEM, specifically computer science. Several prominent researchers have explored or are exploring the use of e-textiles and sewable circuits in the classroom to understand gendering of components and gendered access in crafting and electronics practices, among other issues. E-textiles and sewing circuits can also be used to show women in nontraditional gender roles, such as business owner and inventor.

“From discussions around the ethics of copying patterns to the sourcing of fabrics to conditions for garment workers to the use of craft as a form of activism,” Vasko says, “there is no shortage of topics for discussion to help students gain a broader conceptualisation of ethics in crafting, making, and STEM.”

Researchers have found that e-textiles and sewing with circuits can help introduce young women to STEM, specifically computer science.

But the effects aren’t limited to sewing. In their ongoing studies of scientists and engineers, Michigan State University researchers Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein have found not only that “significant arts and crafts experience is highly correlated with professional success in science and engineering as measured by outcomes such as major prizes and honors, patents, or the founding of new high tech companies” but also that “no particular art or craft confers advantage over any other.” Dance, music, drama, painting, sculpting, printmaking, photography, composing music– all forms of arts and crafts correlate with increased probability of success.

It’s not the type of art or craft that matters, then, but the “early introduction to arts and crafts in elementary and middle school years followed by persistent practice of that art or craft into adulthood” that leads to STEM success.

Whereas most STEM programs promote only a handful of thinking skills–namely, observing, analogising, modeling, and patterning–Root-Bernstein found that scientists with arts and crafts backgrounds also acquired imaging, visualising, and abstracting skills; dimensional, kinesthetic, and empathetic thinking; and the ability to transform data or convert ideas into material procedures.

“All stakeholders, including legislators, school boards, educators, parents and students, should be informed of the value of arts/crafts to STEM education,” they write.

4. Role Playing Games for Coding

Melissa Dann, a teacher in Melbourne, introduces her students to coding by playing a game called “Robots and Programmers” where young students work in pairs, one as the Robot and the other as the Programmer.

Programmers can ask Robots to take steps, turn, jump, hop, etc. Programmers must say please, or the Robot will not respond. This is similar to the game Simon Says, where the children don’t respond unless the command is prefaced with ‘Simon says.’ Dann keeps the activity to a maximum of 10 steps, since that reflects the size of her room. A typical session might go as follows:

Programmer: “Take 10 steps.”
Robot: “You didn’t say ‘Robot please’.”
Programmer: “Robot please take 10 steps.”
Robot: “1,2…10.” (counting steps)
Programmer: “Robot please turn a quarter.”
Robot: “Which way?”
Programmer: (Using spinner, turns spinner) “That way, right.” (pointing right)
Programmer: “Robot please turn a whole circle.”
Programmer: “Robot please take 4 steps backwards.”
Robot: “1, 2, 3, 4.”
Programmer: “Robot please take 5 plus 3.”
Robot: “How many is that?” (Programmer and robot count on their finger 5 plus 3)

“Language development is an important part of the activity,” Dann explains in a guest post on Brian Aspinall’s blog. She says she has also taken the game outside, on the playground, which led to a lot more use of location language. “Also I place a big emphasis is on counting accurately. Some of these children cannot count accurately to 20 yet, and if they can, some don’t have 1-to-1 correspondence to 20. For the children who are very capable, they can ask their robot to move 5 plus 5 steps, or 2 less than 8 steps, double 2 steps, etc. The children have to be able to work the answer out before the Robot can move.”

After playing the game the first time, it became apparent to Dann that they needed a way to decide how far a turn was (¼ turn, ½ turn, etc). So she made spinners with a ¼ turn, ½ turn, and full turn that showed left and right. They also started using BeeBots on Friday and the spinners were helpful as each press of the turn button on the BeeBot is a quarter turn.

“It has been interesting to watch the dynamics between the pairs of children,” Dann says. “As with all activities, some groups were very focused, others not so. One group was very silly until the children swapped roles, and then they were much more focused. I asked them at the end if it was easier being a Robot or a Programmer. One child (who was the programmer first) had found it very hard to be the programmer and think of things to ask their partner to do, hence the lack of focus. But when they swapped roles, they had enjoyed being a robot.”


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or Facebook.

2 Responses

  1. Yes! Finally something about specialized high schools.

  2. Ace says:

    I really like the coding game as a way of learning! I’m going to use it with my kids.

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